He Sued Chevron and Won. Now He’s Under House Arrest.

Chevron is using the U.S. courts to avoid paying out $9.5 billion for environmental damage—and to silence lead lawyer Steven Donziger.

Christine MacDonald

Human rights lawyer Steven Donziger won a $9.5 billion class action settlement against Chevron in 2011 on behalf of 30,000 people in the Amazon, but has been under house arrest since 2019 after Chevron retaliated through various legal maneuvers. (Photo by Raul Coto Batres)

NEW YORK CITY — Human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, 58, prowls his Man­hat­tan apart­ment from bright liv­ing room to dim kitchen and back, too rest­less to sit still while dis­cussing the events that have brought him to this moment: ner­vous about the future, his law license sus­pend­ed, his every move­ment sur­veilled by a black ankle bracelet he nev­er imag­ined he’d be wear­ing. He’s been under house arrest since August 2019.

It feels like I am a cor­po­rate polit­i­cal pris­on­er,” Donziger says. He suc­cess­ful­ly sued the multi­na­tion­al ener­gy cor­po­ra­tion Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indige­nous peo­ple and farm­ers in the Ama­zon rain­for­est. Oil explo­ration and drilling by Tex­a­co (lat­er acquired by Chevron) pol­lut­ed Ecuador’s rain­for­est from the 1960s to the ear­ly 1990s, leav­ing behind near­ly a thou­sand unlined pits of waste. Birth defects, mis­car­riages and can­cer rates sky­rock­et­ed.

After a near­ly 20-year legal bat­tle, Donziger’s team won a $9.5 bil­lion judg­ment against the oil com­pa­ny in 2011. But with the bless­ing of a fed­er­al judge, Chevron has used the U.S. courts to avoid pay­ing out. 

With the case now in its 27th year, Chevron has employed dozens of law firms and thou­sands of lawyers to over­whelm the Ecuado­rans’ legal team.

Chevron seems to be try­ing to kill off the very idea of me,” Donziger says, refer­ring to human rights activists more broadly.

In 2012, Chevron filed a case against Donziger and his firm using the Rack­e­teer Influ­enced and Cor­rupt Orga­ni­za­tions Act, known as RICO, char­ac­ter­iz­ing the Ecuado­ran judg­ment against the com­pa­ny as extor­tion. In 2014, U.S. Dis­trict Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, in New York, barred the Ecuado­rans from enforc­ing the judg­ment. Kaplan, known as a cor­po­rate-friend­ly judge, con­clud­ed that Chevron — not the Ecuado­ran plain­tiffs — was the real vic­tim, and that Donziger and his legal team were guilty of bribery and fraud. 

Activist groups con­demn Chevron’s long-term strat­e­gy to demo­nize Donziger” (as phrased in a 2009 com­pa­ny memo) but say Kaplan’s treat­ment of Donziger is more alarm­ing. Kaplan’s rul­ings appear by design to send a chill­ing mes­sage to human rights lawyers: You could be dis­barred, bank­rupt­ed — even thrown into jail — for chal­leng­ing pow­er­ful cor­po­rate interests.

Rick Fried­man, an attor­ney who rep­re­sent­ed Donziger in the RICO tri­al, says “[Donziger] did an unfor­giv­able thing, which is to get an unprece­dent­ed judg­ment against an oil com­pa­ny, and the pow­ers that be can­not tol­er­ate that.”

Chevron’s RICO case hung on the tes­ti­mo­ny of Alber­to Guer­ra, a dis­graced for­mer judge from Ecuador who, with Kaplan’s OK, was allowed to tes­ti­fy — even though Chevron had paid Guer­ra to claim Donziger and his coun­ter­parts had won the class action suit by promis­ing a kick­back to the pre­sid­ing judge. In a relat­ed case in 2015, how­ev­er, Guer­ra admit­ted under oath he had lied in Kaplan’s court­room. In the five years since, Kaplan has not mod­i­fied his rul­ing. Instead, Kaplan has inten­si­fied judi­cial over­sight of Donziger. 

In July 2019, Kaplan found Donziger in crim­i­nal con­tempt. Donziger had raised funds in an effort to make Chevron pay the $9.5 bil­lion through a court sys­tem out­side of the Unit­ed States, but was ordered to turn over to Chevron all the mon­ey he raised.

Chevron will con­tin­ue its efforts to hold the lawyers and investors behind this fraud­u­lent scheme account­able,” the com­pa­ny said in a July 2019 press release. 

But Kaplan’s 2019 deci­sions against Donziger depart­ed from nor­mal judi­cial over­sight. For starters, Kaplan brought crim­i­nal con­tempt charges, though the under­ly­ing case is civ­il. Kaplan also ordered Donziger to turn over his com­put­er, phone and online pass­words to help the court iden­ti­fy assets that Chevron could seize from Donziger to recov­er the oil company’s legal fees. Donziger has appealed.

When Kaplan couldn’t con­vince fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors to take up the crim­i­nal con­tempt case against Donziger, the judge made a vir­tu­al­ly unprece­dent­ed deci­sion: Rather than leav­ing it to the court system’s ran­dom judi­cial selec­tion process, Kaplan dep­u­tized a pri­vate attor­ney to pros­e­cute Donziger before a fed­er­al judge picked by Kaplan. By August 2019, U.S. Dis­trict Court Judge Loret­ta A. Pres­ka had placed Donziger on home deten­tion, which has now last­ed more than six months. 

Cana­di­an envi­ron­men­tal­ist Rex Weyler says Kaplan’s goal is to force Donziger to aban­don the case and starve it of resources. They are hop­ing that the pow­er of their mon­ey will tilt the scales of jus­tice so far that they will nev­er be held account­able,” Weyler says. 

[Chevron has tried to] turn this case into a sto­ry about [Donziger] rather than the actu­al pol­lu­tion in the Ama­zon, one of the worst envi­ron­men­tal oil-relat­ed crimes in his­to­ry,” says Paul Paz y Miño, asso­ciate direc­tor of Ama­zon Watch, an orga­ni­za­tion that has been sup­port­ing the Ecuado­ran plaintiffs.

Luis Yan­za, an envi­ron­men­tal activist from Ecuador and pres­i­dent of the Frente de Defen­sa de la Ama­zonía (the Ama­zon Defense Coali­tion) rep­re­sent­ing many of the 30,000 plain­tiffs, says they are indig­nant over Kaplan’s ruling.

It’s injus­tice,” Yan­za says. There was no fraud. The dam­ages exist. The dam­ages are killing a lot of peo­ple here.”

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is an inves­tiga­tive reporter and author, whose work focus­es cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and green­wash­ing. She was a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

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